New Mexico State University

Ph.D. Qualifying Examination

(Note: this description does not apply to students in the Interdisciplinary Doctorate program.)

The Qualifying Examination as specified here is only relevant to you if you are in the CS Department's doctoral program. It is held near the beginning of each Fall and Spring semester. You should attempt the Examination (for the first time) as soon as possible after completion of 12 graduate credit hours within Computer Science. These credits include those earned elsewhere.

Students with a Master's degree are strongly advised to take the exam no later than 1 semester. Students without a Masters are encouraged to take the exam after a minimum of 12 credits.

You may not take the Examination until you have successfully completed all your undergraduate deficiencies.

The Examination is independent of your doctoral committee, which may be formed only after you pass the Examination. However, there is nothing to stop you informally lining people up for the committee before you have passed the Examination.

The Examination will test your breadth of knowledge within Computer Science and the ability to assimilate subject matter presented at the graduate level.

For each area covered the Examination also distinguishes between the level of ability needed for you to do research in that area and the less demanding level that is sufficient for you to do research in some other area.

Your result of the Examination is decided at a special faculty meeting that takes into account

(i) your performance on a written test

(ii) other considerations (listed below).

By default, the written test will be OPEN BOOK. However, selected areas such as 1 & 2 are always closed book. . It will occupy either a two or three days, and will take approximately 8 hours altogether. The tests will consist of questions over four compulsory areas and over one ``Graduate Specialty'' area chosen by you. Normally, the questions will cover just one area; but, some questions might be integrative, i.e. covering two or more areas.

The four compulsory areas are:

(1) Automata, Languages and Computability

(2) Analysis of Algorithms

(3) Programming Languages

(4) ONE OF: Architecture, Operating Systems

In (4), you may choose between Architecture and Operating Systems.

The Graduate Specialty areas available to you to choose from will be a varying subset of areas covered in graduate-level courses in the department. The subset will be specified at the end of every Spring semester (for the Fall examination in the same calendar year) and at the beginning of every Fall semester (for the Spring examination in the next calendar year).

Feel free to communicate to the Graduate Committee chairman your desires for particular Graduate Specialties. One of Architecture or Operating Systems can be counted as a Graduate Specialty if the other one is counted as compulsory. Both of these areas will always be available to you to choose from.

You must make your choice of Graduate Specialty and between the two possibilities in (4) when asked to do so by the Department. This request will normally be made in the semester preceding the one in which you are taking the Examination.

The special faculty meeting can consider not only the written-test grades but also any other factors deemed relevant to the chances of your success in doctoral research. The main examples of such factors are (in no particular order):

  • relevant course grades (usually only those numbered 500 or above
  • comments by faculty members who know you
  • your performance in any research assistantships you have had
  • any technical reports or journal/conference papers you may have written (or co-authored, although in that case we will need evidence concerning your degree of involvement)
  • existence and quality of any Master's Thesis or Project you have done (not necessarily at NMSU).

You should NOT interpret the above list as a statement that you need to have had research assistantships, to have written papers, etc.

The general faculty meeting will assess, on a case-by-case basis, whether you

  • have sufficient BACKGROUND knowledge/ability/potential over the compulsory areas and your Graduate Specialties
  • and show RESEARCH POTENTIAL in at least one area (compulsory or Graduate Specialty).

The possible outcomes of the Examination are:



that is, if you wish to remain in the PhD program, you must take the Examination again (after the passage of at least one semester, and within a specified time limit).


you are removed from the PhD program, but in some cases you may be recommended for placement in the MS program.

These are essentially the same as the possible outcomes specified in the Graduate Catalog.

A retake of the Examination will normally occur in the following Fall or Spring semester (Spring or Fall semester). You have a total of three consecutive attempts to pass all five (required and elective) subjects of the qualification exams.

Just an overall examination result will be formally reported to you. No formal grades on particular areas will be issued.

A written question that involves an area can be based partly on material from any closely relevant graduate course in the department, and from the direct or indirect prerequisites of those courses.

In special circumstances, the faculty may decide to hold an interview with you. The interview could conceivably include oral testing of technical material, but on the other hand it might only seek to assess your attitude towards research or graduate studies. You would be informed of the nature of the interview in advance.

SAMPLE EXAMINATION PAPERS: Please inquire at the department office.